In Singapore, low-wage employees are entitled to one day off per week [footnote 1]. This is considered a “rest day”. If employees work on this rest day, then they are due rest day pay. The pay for rest day work in Singapore is governed by the Employment Act. This seems straightforward. However, it is not. The rate of pay for rest day work depends on whether the employer or the employee requests the work be done. If an employer requests the rest day work, the employee earns double the regular hourly wage (a double rate of pay). If an employee requests the rest day work, the employee earns a single hourly wage (a single rate of pay). Why would Singapore create a system that requires different payments depending on whether the employee or employer requests the rest day work? Isn’t the need for rest day work based on the employer’s business decision rather than an employee’s whim? Wouldn’t employers have an incentive to claim that all rest day work is at the employee’s request?
This article will discuss the issues raised by the current rules on rest day pay and suggests a revision of the Employment Act to create one rate of pay for rest day work and thus prevent possible avenues for exploitation of low-wage employees in Singapore.
Two rules on rest day pay
Singapore’s rules on payment for work on weekly rest days are found in the Employment Act, 1968, as set forth below;
- Section 37(2) – Single rate of pay if an employee works at his/her own request
- Section 37(3) – Double rate of pay if an employee works at employer’s request
You may wonder, how do we determine who requested work on a rest day? It is an important question in Singapore because who requested the work determines the rate of wages paid. To understand what ‘request to work’ means, we looked for clarifications in subordinate legislation (such as regulations or ministry advisories) and past courts’ decisions. We found no such clarifications.
Without much guidance on sections 37(2) and (3), we turn to the origin of the Employment Act and compare it with other countries’ labour laws.
When the Employment Act was enacted in 1968, sections 37(2) and (3) were introduced to help business owners reduce costs and create more jobs [footnote 2]. The origin of this wage disparity in Singapore is found in what was discussed in the Parliament in 1968. The then-Minister for Labour stated,
“..there is no justification for a worker to demand double pay for work performed on a rest day if he works for his employer at his own request. We have had instances of this in the past and it is necessary that there must not be a recurrence of such undesirable practices.”
Let us remind the readers that this was in 1968. Since then, the Employment Act has been amended numerous times (including recently) to improve the protection of workers’ rights and address the inequality of bargaining power [footnote 3]. It is difficult to fathom that the current labour law standard accepts the then-Minister’s comment.
When we look at the current labour laws of 16 countries, none have rules equivalent to Singapore’s sections 37(2) and (3). The details can be found by clicking on the download icon at right. All 16 countries have their own rules for uniform compensation for work on rest days, regardless of who requested the work [footnote 4].
Only Malaysia had a rule equivalent to section 37(2) in the past, although we are unsure when exactly it was removed and why [footnote 5].
Problems raised by Sections 37(2) and (3)
Determining who requested rest day work is difficult 一 Employer-employee communications in general and about rest day work specifically often happen verbally, especially for blue-collar workers. When a dispute arises about payment, it is difficult to objectively determine who requested the rest day work because there is no written agreement [footnote 6]. Another difficulty is the lack of clear guidance in Singapore law about what constitutes a rest day work “request” in this context.
Besides, whether rest day work is needed is not up to the employees; instead, it is up to the employer to determine this need as a business decision. Employers are at liberty to decline an employee’s request to work on a rest day if the work is not needed. It seems strange that s 37(2) disregards this point.
Low-wage employees are vulnerable to exploitation 一 Section 37(2) can be used by employers to save costs for work undertaken on rest days by pressuring employees to make a request for rest day work or to say they did so after the fact [footnote 7]. Employees who are unaware of their legal rights or the cost implications of these requests are especially vulnerable to such manipulation. Some unscrupulous employers even ask employees to sign a document which says, “I request to work on a rest day”.
TWC2 met a group of workers recently whose employer made them sign a consent form which said, “I want to work on my rest day (date)” (see below), even though the workers clearly stated that the employer requested them to work. We believe some workers signed the letters without knowing the legal implications, and some signed because they would rather take a single rate than nothing (by not working). Later, one of the workers lodged a salary complaint against the employer for short payment of salaries for rest days worked. The signed letters became the nail in the coffin, and he lost his claim.
“Rest day work consent form” obtained from an employer during a mediation session at TADM [Footnote 8] over a salary claim.
Presumption of free will 一 It is assumed that low-wage Work Permit holders in Singapore are free to negotiate the terms of their employment relationships with their employers. This is not the case; and such a presumption fails to take into account the reality of the power imbalance between low-wage employees and their employers. Low-wage Work Permit holders have paid a high price to recruitment agents and other intermediaries to be employed in Singapore. In addition, they cannot change employers without their previous employer’s consent. Due to these facts, and the low wages paid to Work Permit holders, employees have strong incentives to agree to working on a rest day to bolster their meagre salaries.
Yet, according to a decision of the Singapore Industrial Arbitration Court in 1969 concerning section 37, there is a presumption that an employee may use their discretion when deciding whether to work on a rest day [footnote 9]. It goes on to state that such a presumption is defeated if employers have disproportional power over their employees.
Times have changed since 1969, and employers today do have disproportionate power over their Work Permit employees due to the high recruitment fees they’ve paid for their employment and their inability to change employers at will [footnote 10]. Today the reality is that low-wage migrant workers’ discretion is very limited. Even for local workers, if an employer implies the need for work on a rest day but does not expressly say it, employees may feel obligated to ‘request’ to work. These possibilities cast doubts on the request’s legitimacy as truly at the employee’s request.
The danger of employers’ exploitation of section 37(2) has been raised by various stakeholders, including by a Member of Parliament during a Parliamentary debate in 1995 [footnote 11]. For example, Gabriel, a published author and experienced Human Resource practitioner, said:
“In reality, it is almost impossible to determine who is asking for work to be done. Employers may see it as an opportunity to reduce costs and hope that employees put in a request to work on a rest day and employees would not be motivated to work on a rest day if the rate is not attractive enough to sacrifice a much needed rest day. This could set the stage for manipulation. I know of cases where employers applied pressure on employees to sign a form indicating that they requested to work on a rest day when in actual fact it was the employer who engineered the whole thing.” [footnote 12]
Taking advantage of financial precarity – What drives employees to give up a rest day to work? Why would they do so for a single (rather than double) rate of pay? Low wages, high indebtedness and precarious employment will likely be the driving forces behind such decisions. Many migrant workers do not know they are entitled to double pay for rest day work. Migrant workers who pay high recruitment costs to work in Singapore and then cannot change employers once they have arrived may follow their employer’s lead to request to work on rest days for a single rate of pay due to their financial hardship. This leads us to a pressing question about section 37(2): Is it ethical for Singapore to allow employers to take advantage of employees’ financial precarity? Will Singapore’s continuation of these unethical and outdated modes of conduct tarnish its reputation internationally?
To remedy the disparity and lack of clarity of Sections 37(2) and (3), Singapore should revise the Employment Act to create a uniform rate of pay for rest day work, and thus prevent potential avenues for the exploitation of employees in Singapore.
Rest day work should be paid at double rate, period.
1. Employment Act 1968, s 36. The Part IV of the Act covers manual laborers earning basic monthly salary of $4,500 or less and nonmanual laborers earning basic monthly salary of $2,600 or less. Most of Non-domestic Work Permit Holders fall under this category.
2. History SG, ‘Enactment of the Employment Act – 15th August 1968 -‘ (2014) <https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/73b9f60e-9252-4b7a-9bcc-e91ee59bdba5#:~:text=The%20Employment%20Act%20came%20into,of%20their%20occupations%20and%20titles.> accessed 20 March 2023.
3. Meera Rajah, ‘‘From Third World to First’: A Case Study of Labor Laws in a Changing Singapore’ (Labour Law Journal, 2019), 46.
4. Hong Kong, New Zealand and the UK do not have statutory minimum pay for work on rest days. The pay for work on rest days would depend on the contractual agreement and the minimum wage law. (Singapore does not have a minimum wage law)
5. Employment Act 1955 (MY), s 60(2). See also Sundaram v Veemah & Ors  1 MLJ 83.
6. Fillinger Tamera and others, ‘Labour protection for the vulnerable: An evaluation of the salary and injury claims system for migrant workers in Singapore’  Research Collection School of Social Sciences Paper 2217, 35.
7. Fillinger Tamera and others, ‘Labour protection for the vulnerable: An evaluation of the salary and injury claims system for migrant workers in Singapore’  Research Collection School of Social Sciences Paper 2217, 35.
8. Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM).
9. Straits Times Press (Malaya) Limited v The Singapore National Union of Journalists  SGIAC 15, .
10. There are small exceptions, such as the non-consent period. See Ministry of Manpower, ‘Work Permit: hiring an existing process worker’ <http://www.mom.gov.sg/passes-and-permits/work-permit-for-foreign-worker/sector-specific-rules/hiring-existing-worker-in-process-sector>
11. Singapore Parl Debates; Vol 65, Issue or Sitting No 1; Col or Page 40 [1 Nov 1995], 59. See also Matthew Teo, Kenneth Lim, ‘Key takeaways for employers from recent SBS Transit case’ (Helmsman LLC, 27 September 2022) <https://www.lexology.com/commentary/litigation/singapore/helmsman-llc/key-takeaways-for-employers-from-recent-sbs-transit-case> accessed 23 March 2023.
12. Martin Gabriel, A Guide to THE EMPLOYMENT ACT and Its Related Legislations (HRmatters21 2019), 119.